The Concorde… Airport ’79recommended viewing

There’s so much... there’s so much fear!
★★★★
☆☆☆☆☆
Released: 
1979
Director: 
David Lowell Rich
Starring: 
Alain Delon, Susan Blakely, Robert Wagner, George Kennedy, John Davidson, CHARO!
The Setup: 
Guy wants to kill his girlfriend reporter, so he tries to shoot down her commercial aircraft.
Discussion: 

This is the one Airport movie that I had never seen when it was out [actually, I don’t think I ever saw the first one], and it comes on the same DVD with Airport ’77 [the one where the plane sinks to the bottom of the ocean], which I have seen 10,002 times. So how exciting—a whole new Airport movie! AND it’s from the zenith of American culture, 1979! So obviously you see why I was motivated to start this one at 2am, upon arriving home from a bar. Because I have priorities!

Let’s begin with our all-star cast. Alain Delon! Susan Blakely! Bibi Anderson! Eddie Albert! CHARO![!!] John Davidson! Cicely Tyson! Jimmie Walker! And music by Lalo Schifrin. I should also mention that this film's title, on screen, is not The Concorde: [colon] Aiport '79, but The Concorde... [ellipsis] Airport '79, which, grammatically speaking, means that some part of the full title was left out. Just carelessness, folks!

Delon, quite a bit older than his prime days as a French hunk, is the Captain of the Concorde as it lands in Washington, D.C. BUT there’s a hot-air balloon that reads “Stop the Concorde!” piloted by members of the “radical environmental group” AIRPEACE, hovering just above the runway! So Delon has to execute a daring lift-off from where he was about to land, and that’s about it. Just a little action up front, folks. What this group’s problem with the Concorde, as opposed to any other plane, is not satisfactorily explained.

So now we’re on the ground, where we start to be introduced to our characters. Delon was having a tempestuous affair with Isabelle, but he “hurt her,” and now she’s being a cool customer. He tells her "your hair is my french fries." Apparently the writer thinks that French people refer to Pommes Frites as French Fries. He is also implying that Delon likes to eat hair with his cheeseburger. John Davidson [known best to me from CHEESY TV variety show “That’s Incredible!” where people executed various inane stunts] is romancing this Russian gymnast who needs to get to Moscow for the Olympics. And TV news personality Susan Blakely as Maggie is dating the obligatory Robert Wagner, president of Harrison Industries, which manufactures weapons, and is in the testing phases on this “drone” that is essentially a guided missile. Maggie is at home when this guy shows up at her door late at night, saying that he has documents proving that Harrison Industries is selling weapons that are being used against US troops! Isn’t this quaint? That back then someone would even be UPSET about such a thing? Anyway, the guy is standing there in her foyer, when suddenly another guy comes in and shoots him! He shoots at Maggie, but she runs upstairs and narrowly escapes by climbing out on her sunroof. This movie also dates from the days when TV news anchors were presumed to be serious investigative journalists, not just pretty puppets who mouth the words projected in front of them. Anyway, turns out it was her boyfriend Wagner who ordered the hit! They have a tearful goodbye at the airport—where the gate is RIGHT off the main ticketing area, and there is NO security process—in which he holds her and says “Sweet, sweet Maggie,” and she breathes “I love you SO much,” then leaves for the plane. BUT—someone slips her the incriminating documents seconds before she boards! She reads them and is SHOCKED!

Okay, so Maggie, sweet, sweet Maggie has read the incriminating reports [with Wagner watching in the background in a directorial showstopper], then decides to CALL him from the cockpit to TELL him that she's read these incriminating reports and how COULD he? Okay—so someone was just SHOT five feet away from you the night before over these VERY reports, and now you're going to CALL the guy at the center of all this and tell him you have all this evidence? I'm surprised newscasters didn't protest this smear on their profession—and we're not 20 minutes in. Wagner convinces her to not tell anyone else until he can "give his side of the story" in Paris, gets off the phone, and orders the entire plane destroyed with the missile—which he will then blame on mechanical failure. That really does seem like the most sensible, no-nonsense solution, don't you think? Destroy the most high-profile plane on the planet, killing about 100 people—no one'll notice that—and doom your brand new technology to failure before it is released because it went haywire and shot down a passenger airplane! I'm sure you can see why a nice, quiet restaurant assassination or poison pills or something were completely out of the question.

So first we notice that Jimmie Walker is on the plane as a musician who refuses to part with his saxophone, and plays little sax bursts every few seconds—I would want to kill him. Then poor, poor Cicely Tyson is on hand as a woman escorting a live heart to be transplanted into her son. Umm, wouldn't that thing be better left with medical technicians? Then Avery Schreiber [of Galaxina and Doritos commercials] is on hand as a Russian father of a deaf girl, which means he is ostentatiously making sign language and speaking along with it incessantly. The film acts as though no one in the audience would have ever seen sign language before. In DC George Kennedy—apparently the only person to be in all four Airport movies—joins the team as an American pilot, Joe, making the cockpit somewhat of an international coalition, pushing Delon into the co-pilot's seat. Joe is the kind of American dude once abundant and considered upright, upstanding Americans [it's amazing to witness the "types" here and how they have changed in the intervening years], but who I just found to be an ASSHOLE. I kept picturing Delon turning to him and saying "Will you just shut the fuck up you fucking ASSHOLE?" Also on board is poor Martha Raye as a woman who has to go to the bathroom every time she gets nervous. We'll come back to her.

Anyway, so they're off! And they're barely a few feet away when the missile comes after them, forcing Captain Joe to execute some daring evasive maneuvers, rolls, flips, and the like. First of all, I did not know that the Concorde was as maneuverable as your average F-14, and I guess I would have thought the fact that they are hurtling forward at twice the speed of sound would have made flips and spins somewhat damaging to the structure of the airplane, but, well, shows what I know. One of the things I found most amusing about this movie is just how PERFUNCTORY the scenes of passengers screaming in the cabin has become. I mean, if you were making one of these movies, wouldn't you want to show the TRANSITION from calm flying to nervousness to screaming? Here they just cut to the passengers screaming, as if to say "Well of course we're going to have several shots of passengers screaming and, very well, here they are then." Anyway, the air force scrambles some planes that shoot the missile down, and the Concorde, which had JUST left DC, decides to just CONTINUE ON TO PARIS! Yeah, I mean, what further trouble could we have?

So Wagner gets on the phone with some evil bigwig in Paris, who arranges to have a fighter jet fly out and try to shoot down the plane. Yeah, I guess they'll just explain that as mechanical failure. So all of a sudden they're having heat-seeking missiles shot at them—cut back to passengers screaming, they must have just shot all of that at once and divided it through the film—and they decide what they're going to do is open the cockpit window and shoot flares out, which will draw the flares away. Okay, now, there's a lot wrong with this movie, just in terms of logic and sense-making, but around this point, the amount that wrong with this movie just EXPLODES EXPONENTIALLY. First of all, they depressurize the cabin, causing the yellow masks to drop out of the ceiling. We have shots of everyone putting them on, but will soon cut away to shots of our stars who are not wearing them. The pilots reach out of frame and put these rather large oxygen masks. I don't mean that they open a compartment where they are bundled for storage, I mean that they literally just REACH OUT OF FRAME and put them on their faces. They then open the window of the cockpit—sure, they just OPEN—which causes great wind back in the cabin, despite the fact that the cockpit door is closed. Then for some reason that still remains a mystery to me, they need to flip the plane upside-down in order to fire the flare. Around this time, you will notice how awfully thoughtful it is of the French assassin pilot to kindly wait for the Concorde to prepare for attack and execute their elaborate moves before firing his missiles. They flip it—despite the fact that they are traveling at Mach 2—and Joe just reaches his hand out the window—despite the fact that they are traveling at Mach 2—and fires the flare out—despite the fact that they are traveling at Mach 2. If you watch the shots where Joe sticks his hand out of the window, there is no wind AT ALL. Then the dumbfuck drops the gun in the cockpit, and the flare bounces around in there! Which is awesome, though it's too bad no one gets killed that way.

But wait, there are still two more missiles left! So what they need to do is cut the engine, which will instantly cool down, throwing the heat-seeking missile off, which is precisely what happens. This also starts the plane plunging from the sky. So Maggie, sweet, sweet Maggie, is such an intrepid reporter that she whips out her recorder to capture her impressions of the attack while it is happening. She says "We're diving—we're diving straight down! There so much—there's so much fear!" They dive almost straight down into the Atlantic, but the Concorde fires its engines JUST in time and is able to pull out before hitting the surface. The French pilot, who, for SOME reason, has followed the plane the entire way down, is not quite so lucky, and explodes on the surface. He really is the most fair, accommodating assassin pilot I've ever seen, and it's quite inspiring. Then poor Martha Raye comes out of the bathroom, hair wet, makeup smeared all over, and says "The bathroom's not working." This woman truly is abused by the makers of this movie, and really has a case should she decide to pursue legal action. You will find that the passengers are all very calm and quiet for having just plunged 32,000 feet, but you know what they say about how manners have deteriorated in the intervening years.

But bitches, this shit is not over. Not by a long shot. You see, the plane's reverse thrusters will not work, so they have no way to stop the plane. Somehow the people on the ground in Paris know this, even though the Concorde never radios down to tell them. They set up these nets, which Kennedy says planes "tear through like crate paper." Blah, blah, so they deploy their landing gear and the plane skids along, tearing through many nets before one finally catches and the plane stops. What's amazing about this sequence is simply how inept and unexciting it is. I mean, it's a real achievement to make an emergency landing in the Concorde with no brakes UNexciting. I was not surprised to hear that this was shot by Universal's television division, because it looks and feels like it. In fact, while watching, I had the thought that this is a better example of television styles of the 70s than as an actual film. So anyway, Captain Joe welcomes everyone to Paris they all get off and go about their business.

Now, at this point, I was like—that's it? That can't be it, because it's only been an hour! And besides, I saw all this stuff in the trailer that hasn't happened yet, But they can't possibly use that plane again the next day—can they? And they can't possibly get all these same passengers back on the plane—can they? OH yes, ladies and gentlemen, YES, they can.

But first a really boring night in Paris. Delon, who refers to Joe once as "Porky Pig," sets him up with a nice woman he knows in Paris, since Joe never shuts up about his dead wife. He has a date in this obvious set that is supposed to be Paris with poor, poor Bibi Andersson, star of classic Bergman films such as Wild Strawberries and Persona, trying her Swedish best to appear Parisian and failing MISERABLY. She sounds perfectly American, only she peppers her conversation with "Oui!" every now and then. THAT is your indication that she is French. We later see them in bed—and I do NOT want to see George Kennedy in bed—and the next morning Joe is all rhapsodic about how he's so much in love, how this woman perfectly understands him, and she's the love of his life, only to have Delon reveal that she's a WHORE! I suppose Delon's character could be construed as quite passive-aggressive, if I thought there was any such depth to the writing here [by Eric Roth, who went on to write Munich, etc]. Meanwhile, Maggie and Wagner are on their big date, where she is being all bitchy and passive-aggressive ["I prefer to WALK!"] but never just coming out and telling him to fuck off. He, I think, gives her a full signed confession, apparently so there's no hard feelings when she expires by his design while 40,000 feet above the earth. She then throws a HUGE scene, with all "I was not going to fall in love! That was not going to happen to me!" but unfortunately Blakely the actress is not up to it. In fact, she's not really up to acting of any kind, and at a certain point it would seem a little cruel to make her go through this—if she wasn't doing it to herself. Anyway, while this is going on, two repairman go over to the deserted Concorde while it sits on the runway. I guess the people who repair the structural damage, replace the reverse thrusters, repair the bathroom, install new tires, and run extensive diagnostics to ensure that the thing is in shape to be flown the next day have all finished their work and gone home. It occurred to me that perhaps the people of the 70s lived lives of terrible, grave danger, and I was simply unaware of this. Anyway, the guys work on the plane together, and then apparently there's some task that requires the one repairman to go outside while the other locks himself inside—the perfect time to enact some sabotage! He then calls Wagner and tells him that this new method is slow, but VERY effective, and we're off for our flight to Moscow the next day. Did I mention that they're all going to the Moscow Olympics? And did I mention that after the movie was shot, the Americans decided to boycott the Moscow Olympics, making this movie obsolete before it was even released?

So yes, every single passenger gets back on for the trip to Moscow the next day. Now let me ask: WHY did they need to take the Concorde in the first place, if their trip was going to be spread over two days and they wouldn’t be saving any time? I’ll leave that for you to ponder. Now by this time the question had crossed my mind: Where the fuck is Charo? Because we were unquestionably promised some Charo in the credits. She shows up, the only noticeable new passenger, in this white fur number. The stewardess asks her if she can take her fur, and Charo says no, with a shot at her cleavage that made me suspect that she didn’t have anything on under there. But no, she’s hiding a little Chihuahua. She is told that she can’t have the dog, and makes comments that imply that the rules are stupid and so is the stewardess, then gets right off. That’s right, her entire part here is limited to roughly 60 seconds! Too bad, she would have been a hoot during the disaster sequences. Meanwhile, back at the airport, the guy who rigged the sabotage in the Concorde was paid in cash, which he strapped to his body, for some reason. I’m not sure that repairmen have to go through security on their way OUT of the airport, and if so, he could have just changed and pretended to be a passenger. Anyway, of course a wad of bills falls out RIGHT at a security guard’s feet, and when the guard calmly and politely tells the guy they fell, he BOLTS instead of simply going back, taking the cash, and saying thanks. This leads to a super-long chase seemingly through the entire airport, and finally outside onto the runways. Of course he ends up running across the runway where the Concorde is taking off. Now I thought the supreme irony [uber-lame edition] here would be that he gets killed by the landing gear, but the supreme irony in the movie is that the wind from the plane scatters all his cash and he is caught. And even though this guy was caught and the other maintenance worker recognized him from working on the plane last night, no one bothers to call the Concorde and tell them something might be up.

So now Raye says she doesn’t have to use the bathroom, but takes a double-hit of booze. I am QUITE sure that excised “comedy” footage of her drunk on the second flight exists somewhere. After an insufferable scene in which Schreiber brings his deaf brat to the cockpit, the thingy downstairs opens the cargo hold. It opens just a crack, an air starts streaming out. It is with great regret that I inform you that this idea is actually somewhat effective. I liked the idea of the plane slowly coming apart and the captain and everyone knowing something is amiss but not being able to tell what it is. Then Jimmie Walker, having gotten stoned in the restroom, comes out and walks by these two girls who are having a little party with a radio in a cubby-hole of the plane, and we pan down and see the low-pile carpet start to slowly rip open in a way that is EFFECTIVE! I could not believe it. There are a few more hints of the plane slowly coming apart before the cargo door comes fully off and people’s luggage starts flying out into the air. Well, THAT shit is not going to be delivered to their hotel. Then holes start opening up in the floor, and Eddie Albert’s chair falls into one of them, holding on by a thread! Albert plays the owner of the plane, and his trophy wife is sitting right behind him. It occurred to be that a discreet tap of her heel might have sent the old man plunging to his doom and put a nice little chunk of change in her pocket, but you know, you never think clearly in crisis situations.

So what they’re gonna do is land the plane on a ski slope in the Alps. They do just that, not losing a single passenger in the process, then the top of the plane collapses. Exposition is delivered by a guy yelling “I smell gas! The plane’s gonna explode!” They all get out—Maggie rushing back to get her purse, with the documents, which conveniently just stayed put right at her seat while everything else in the cabin was flying around. The plane, like the French assassin pilot, very considerately waits until everyone has been evacuated to explode. Maggie gets on the news almost instantly, and announces that she has incriminating documents. I’m not sure even now if she’s put together that Wagner was behind this whole thing. He, watching on TV, shoots himself in the head. Then we have a final shot of the Concorde flying majestically against a sunset, as if to say “See? The plane’s okay, it was all a special effect!” OH, and guess what? The plane they used in this film was actually the same one that later crashed on a Parisian runway, leading to the demise of the Concorde as a means of travel.

This is pure fun entertainment. Just so all-round silly and hysterical and not making the slightest hint of sense from its surface to its core, it supplies both cheesy thrills and a lot of laugh at and be amazed by. Apparently, preview audiences laughed this off the screen, and then Universal decided to pretend to be in on the joke by acting as though the comedy was intentional. The tagline was: “You won’t believe the thrills—or the laughs!” Nice try, fellas.

The thing is, there were many times here in which I thought it was possible that it could be made good, especially in the second half, where the plane is slowly coming apart. This is again one of those cheesy movies I would love to see a serious, talented director take on and make good, since there are traces of an excellent setup, an inherently tense and dramatic situation, and lots of opportunities for brilliant set-pieces. But alas, by this time these movies were on their last legs. I need to go back and watch the original Airport and see if that is actually good. In fact, I think I’m going to watch the whole series in reverse order—I’ve already started on Airport ’77, on this same DVD.

Anyway, if you want cheesy disaster movie action and ridiculous intrigue, all magnified by horrible production values, terrible performances and an entirely ludicrous story—and who doesn’t?—you’ve got it all right here.

Should you watch it: 

Yes! It’s astonishingly bad and incredibly fun!

Comments

I saw this movie on TV, and remember almost nothing about it--except the carpet ripping apart. You're right that it actually does a good job of playing on viewer's fears of air travel, the idea that something in the plane is slowly coming apart.